Social Change in the 19th Century Novel

Luddism, Chartism and the Women’s Question in Charlotte Brontë’s "Shirley"

Examination Thesis 2008 85 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theory and Methodology
2.1. New Historicism
2.1.1. Theoretical Assumptions
2.1.2. Methodology
2.1.3. Possible Foci
2.2. Cultural Materialism
2.3. Approach and Methodology of this Study
2.4. Social Change

3. Main Part
3.1. Shirley as a Victorian Multi-Plot Novel
3.2. The Industrial Plot
3.2.1. Shirley – A Condition of England Novel
3.2.2. The Setting - The Historical Socio-Economic Situation of 1811/12 and Its Representation The Historical Socio-Economic Situation of 1811/12 – Napoleonic Wars and Orders in Council The Representation of 1811/12 in Shirley
3.2.3. Luddism and Chartist Movement - The Technique of Backdating The Luddite Movement The Chartist Movement Reasons for Backdating Personal and Political Factors Institutional Factors – The Victorian Publishing Sector Backdating as a Technique for a Subtle Comment on Chartism Results
3.2.4. The Portrayal of the Luddites – “A Lurid Travesty”? Sound Research Tory Views and the Myth of the Luddites - A Paternalist Solution Ambivalent Attitude towards the Working Classes Tory Partiality and the Middle-class Myth of the Luddites Paternalism as a Solution for the Condition of England
Question Results Relationship between Gentry and Middle-Class as the Main Focus Links to Other Discourses Luddism and Victorian Denominations Victorian Denominations Shirley’s Attack on Methodism and Antinomianism
as the Driving Force Behind Working-Class
Militancy The Anglican Church in Need of an Evangelical
Reform Critique of the Whig-Interpretation of History and of Nostalgic
Currents History as the Leading Discipline in the Age of
Science Nostalgia and Victorian Medievalism Shirley’s Cyclic Notion of History and Its Critique
of Nostalgia Belief in the Advantageous Effects of Industrialism on the
Condition of Victorian Women Playing Down of Child Labour The Women’s Question Feminists’ Belief in the Self-Supporting Factory
Girl and in a Practical Republicanism of Trade

4. Conclusion and Outlook

5. Bibliography

Social Change in the 19th Century Novel:

Luddism, Chartism and the Women’s Question in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley

1. Introduction

Charlotte Brontë’s third novel Shirley, first published in 1849, deviates notably from her other works Jane Eyre (1847), Villette (1853) and The Professor (published posthumously 1857). Contrary to these biographical novels, which focus on the personal history and emotional experiences of an individual heroine, Shirley paints a socio-economic picture of a historical period and confronts a number of characters with the public world of social conflict and politics (cf. Rosengarten 1983, 46; Rosengarten 1991, 51; Pinion, 125).

Due to its richness of topics, plots and characters, Shirley lends itself to a range of analyses by diverse theoretical approaches to literary studies and thus allows various readings of the text. Biographical research links biographical facts of Charlotte Brontë’s life to setting, plot and characters in the novel, and portrays her as a prime example of a novelist as an imaginative autobiographer, whose fiction is derived consistently from his or her experience (cf. Rosengarten 1983, 26; Rosengarten 1991, 30; Taylor, 84; Hook & Hook, Introduction 9, 28). Marxist interpretations of Shirley investigate the representation of the working class and class struggles in the novel (cf. Thaden, 90 et seq.), while psychological and psychosexual research explores the relationship between (female) passion and repression (Avery, 121; Burkhardt, 78 et seqq). Scholars interested in the regional aspects of the novel study the Yorkshire manners and spirit or the Yorkshire dialect in Brontë’s fiction, and celebrate Shirley as the “first great English regional novel” (cf. Bentley, 73 et seq., 113 et seq.; Hook & Hook, Introduction 24; Eagleton, 56; Belasco Smith, 644; Sherry, 71). Furthermore, all the works of Charlotte Brontë have become central texts for feminist literary theory which attributes an exemplary quality to them, and Shirley is of particular interest for feminists, who ask whether Brontë’s heroines represent or violate norms of femininity, or even revolutionize gender roles (cf. Berns, 70; Winnifrith, 95; Taylor, 84).

Basically, Shirley as a historical novel tells a story set in the beginning of the 19th century from a mid-century perspective (Hook & Hook, Introduction 19). Thus, its subject matter is primarily history, something “real, cool and solid”, and “unromantic as Monday morning”, as the novel’s authorial narrator puts it (Brontë, 39). Due to this, this study will deal with the representation of the historical past in the text, and try to revitalize Brontë’s “dry matter”, in order to avoid that it only appeals to “dryer minds” (Brontë cited according to Zlotnick, 282). The approach of this dissertation is based on New Historicism and Cultural Materialism, and examines the processes of social change in the novel, as well as the influence of historical events on its production. To achieve this goal the analysis will contextualise the industrial plot of Shirley on two time levels, on the level of the setting (1811-12) and on the level of the novel’s production and publication (1848-49).

The study of the industrial plot will first elaborate on Shirley as a condition of England novel before shedding light on the historical conditions of 1811-12 and their representation in the novel’s setting. Subsequently, it will describe Luddism and Chartism as historical working-class movements, in order to argue that Charlotte Brontë’s choice of Luddism was partly motivated by fears of political reprisals, by institutional constraints of the publishing sector, as well as by the power of public opinion. Furthermore, this paper will show that the author deliberately used backdating as a strategy to indirectly comment on Chartism, which is possible due to obvious parallels concerning the socio-economic conditions and the two working-class movements.

The examination will then turn to a controversial issue, the novel’s representation of the Luddites, and will discuss whether the portrayal of the machine wreckers is just a “lurid travesty”, as Terry Eagleton contends (cf. Eagleton, 49). It will demonstrate that the novel is based on thoroughly researched historical facts and exhibits an ambivalent attitude towards the weavers, which suggests a Tory and middle-class view on the Luddites. By suggesting paternalism as a solution to the plight of the working classes Shirley not only criticizes prevailing philosophical and economic currents, like liberalism and utilitarianism, but also resembles the cultural criticism of the Scottish historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle.

The study will also discuss further possible explanations for the peculiar portrayal of the Luddites. By referring to the relationships between the upper and middle classes in the 19th century it will demonstrate that the novel can be read as an advocacy of a class-consolidation between the gentry and the industrial middle classes in order to counter Chartism. The religious affiliations of the novel’s Luddites and the clergy’s demeanour towards the weavers allow another interpretation which foregrounds rivalries between the Anglican Church and dissenting denominations. In this respect, Shirley calls for an Evangelical reform of the Church of England, as well as for a greater commitment for the concerns of the working classes. A third approach relates Shirley to the liberal-progressive Whig-interpretation of history and suggests that the historical setting and the industrial events repudiate this notion by a cyclical idea of history based on suffering and resistance. Finally, the paper will contextualize the novel’s playing down of child labour with the women’s question. It will portray contemporary feminists’ faith in the self-supporting factory girl and their belief in a practical republicanism of trade, in order to argue that the novel shares their hopes for beneficial effects of capitalism on the situation of women in the 19th century.

2. Theory and Methodology

The historical orientation of this paper requires a choice of a theoretical approach to literary studies which focuses on the historical contexts of literary works and its political and social background. Therefore, this analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley will make use of the principles and methodologies of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism.

2.1. New Historicism

New Historicism as an approach to literary studies originated in the USA during the 1980s. It quickly established itself in academic institutions and became a “dominant theoretical paradigm” of literary studies during the 1990s. As a theory it adapted elements of cultural studies and strongly contributed to a cultural and interdisciplinary reorientation of literary studies in America and Europe. (cf. Volkmann 1998, 401 et seq.; Volkmann 2004, 195; Gfrereis, 136; Klarer, 90; Schmitz, 542, Burtscher-Bechter, 266; Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 187; Anz, 363; Newton, 243). Its main representatives include Stephen Greenblatt, C. Gallagher, J. McGann, F. Lentricchia, W.B. Michaels, L.A. Montrose, H.A. Vester, J. Goldberg, M. Butler; J. White, Stephen Orgel, Leonard Tennenhouse, Joel Fineman and Anton Keas (cf. Volkmann 1998, 401; Volkmann 2004, 195; Gfrereis, 136; Klarer 90 et seq.; Wilpert, 560; Schmitz, 542; Anz, 354; Cuddon, 546; Widdowson & Brooker, 190; Burtscher-Bechter, 266 et seq.).

The term “New Historicism” was coined by literary critic and theorist Stephen Greenblatt in 1982 in connection with his studies of the English Renaissance and of the works of Shakespeare. Instead of being a self-contained theory or method, New Historicism denotes a certain modus operandi or concrete practice (Burtscher-Bechter, 267). Therefore, it is used as a collective term for a range of context-oriented, neo-historical approaches to the study of literature (cf. Volkmann 1998, 40; Volkmann 2004, 195; Cuddon, 545; Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 193).

Conceptually, New Historicism distances itself from the literary theory of New Criticism, as well as from the Early Historicism of the 19th century. It rejects New Criticism’s text-immanent and unhistorical view on literature, and criticises its insistence on the autonomy of the text. (cf. Volkmann 1998, 401 et seq.; Volkmann 2004, 195 et seq.; Gfrereis, 137; Wilpert, 560; Cuddon, 546; Burtscher-Bechter, 267 et seq., 272).

Early Historicism, as a former context-oriented approach to literature, emerged in the 19th century as a result of a combination of Hegelian idealism and the evolutionary naturalism of Herbert Spencer. It perceived the history of literature as a part of a larger cultural history, and studied literary works with respect to their historical, social, political and cultural contexts. By distinguishing the literary text from the historical background, literature was interpreted against the backdrop of history as an expression of the “spirit of the age”. This concept regarded literature as a nation’s “evolving spirit” and as the essence of its social, political, cultural and religious history. (cf . Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 187, 191; Burtscher-Bechter, 273).

New Historicism attacks its precursor for its basic assumptions of history by arguing that history itself is neither self-contained nor homogeneous. It denies the existence of a “single history” and emphasizes the notion of discontinuous and contradictory “histories” (Burtscher-Bechter, 268, 272; Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 188). Early Historicism would miss the point that historical interpretations of any kind are always a construction in line with the historian’s particular concerns. Therefore, the study of the past can never be detached and objective (Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 188; Burtscher-Bechter, 268; Volkmann 1998, 401 et seq.; Volkmann 2004, 196). New historicists also posit that the ideal of a uniform and harmonious culture is a myth imposed on history, which is propagated by ruling classes in favour of their own interests. Thus, Early Historicism is accused of being monological and of generalizing the perception of a certain class as a representative standard (cf. Burtscher-Bechter, 268; Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 188).

This new view on history has a strong bearing on the analysis of literature. If there is no fixed, stable and objective history, it cannot be used as a background for literary studies. Thus, New Historicism disapproves the method of a “crude” juxtaposition of text and context, which would reduce literature to a mere reflector of the historical background. History is always a matter of telling a story, of representing events with narrative techniques. It is also some kind of text using other texts as intertexts (cf. Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 188, 191; Volkmann 1998, 402; Volkmann 2004: 196; Cuddon, 546).

New Historicism is also characterised by a productive eclecticism and by an open-mindedness for ideas of other literary theories and scientific disciplines (cf. Volkmann 1998, 402; Volkmann 2004, 196). Aside from the aforementioned cultural studies, New Historicism draws upon theories and concepts from post-structuralism and deconstruction. Another important influence is the discourse analysis of French philosopher and sociologist Michael Foucault (cf. Burtscher-Bechter, 266, 269; Klarer, 90; Anz, 354, Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 187, 189, 191; Cuddon, 546; Gfrereis, 136 et seq.; Schmitz 542; Newton, 234). From the cultural anthropology of US ethnologist Clifford Geertz New Historicism adopted its belief in a strong connection between social and cultural practices, which tries to identify epistemological elements of an epoch even in marginal phenomena (cf. Volkmann 1998, 402; Volkmann 2004, 196; Schmitz, 542; Anz, 354 et seq.; Burtscher-Bechter, 270 et seq.; Newton, 234). New Historicism is also indebted to Marxist literary theory in terms of its philosophical foundations and terminology. It shares its view of the significance of power-relations and of the importance of socio-economic base conditions. Mechanisms of power are regarded as deeply rooted in cultural structures, which dominate the historical and literary discourses of an epoch. Since literature always emerges within a political framework and can have effects on that framework in return, New Historicism emphasises the political character of literature and regards texts as expressions of power discourses. In this regard, it avoids the teleological view of history and the simplistic, deterministic base-superstructure-schemes, which characterize orthodox Marxist theories (cf. Klarer, 90; Cuddon, 545 et seq.; Newton, 234; Wilpert, 560; Schmitz, 542; Strassen 1998, 343; Strassen 2004, 161; Anz, 355; Volkmann 1998, 402; Volkmann 2004; 196; Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 189, 191; Jannidis, 342 et seq.; Scholz, 478).

2.1.1. Theoretical Assumptions

The theoretical basis of New Historicism is the interrelation between literature and history, which Louise Montrose described with the chiasmus of the “historicity of texts” and the “textuality of history” (Burtscher-Bechter, 271; Montrose in Newton, 234, Nünning & Nünning, 42; Anz, 355).

The historicity of texts regards texts as linguistic products of historical, social and psychic factors. They are results of social practices and possess a specific aesthetic power which can cause strong effects (Anz, 355). Social discourses become visible in literary works, which are usually pervaded by several of them and form a discourse network. Therefore, literary texts have to be studied considering their interactions with the standard knowledge or cultural discourses, which prevailed during the time of their genesis. It is necessary to read them in relation to their complex interactions with other texts, including non-literary ones (Burtscher-Bechter, 269; Volkmann 1998, 402; Volkmann 2004, 196; Nünning & Nünning, 42).

The respective discourses are represented in a certain literary way, and in return shaped by the perception of their literary treatment. In this respect, literature is a part of social reality and can, as a form of political action, contain a subversive potential (Burtscher-Bechter, 269; Schmitz, 542; Anz, 356). Similarly, there exist reciprocal effects between texts and the specific historical contexts in which they are created. Thus, literature is not a mere mirror or reflection of historical events, but an integrative and active component of history. As “culture in action” it is embedded in a dynamic, socio-cultural, and aesthetic network of interdependencies, which continues synchronically and diachronically (cf. Burtscher-Bechter, 272; Volkmann 1998, 402, Volkmann 2004, 196).

The textuality of history refers to the fact that access to the past is only possible via texts, which contain traces of former states of a society. These texts are no direct or truthful copies of historical situations or events, but always contain a dimension of orchestration by the historian or interpreter. They are combinations of facts, results of a conscious or random selection, and products of a textualisation which uses techniques of mediation and transformation. Due to this, history is always narrated or told, and never available in its pure form, but solely as a transformed representation. Therefore, historiography can never be a true reconstruction of past reality but always remains a creation of meaning. It basically is and stays a subjective interpretation (Burtscher-Bechter, 272 et sec; Selden, Widdowson & Broocker, 188; Anz, 355).

On the one hand, this notion of the textuality of history implies that New Historicism is a non-truth-oriented approach, which only aims at depicting possible and plausible connections between texts (Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 187; Anz, 354). On the other hand, it also suggests to abandon the notion of history as a kind of isolatable background, and to define it as a textual phenomenon which can be treated akin to literary phenomena. In the same way also culture can be subsumed under the term text, as a fabric made of discourse strands, or as an inter-textual correlation (Klarer, 90; Anz, 355, 357; Burtscher-Bechter, 270, 273, 276).

Due to New Historicism’s handling of literary and non-literary texts on an equal footing, literature loses its privileged status as a mirror of the mentality of an epoch. It is no longer regarded “the sublime and transcendent expression of the human spirit”, but perceived as a text among other texts (Burtscher-Bechter, 273; Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 188 et seq.; Cuddon, 545, Newton, 235). Moreover, literary texts are also deprived of their privileged status as aesthetic entities, since taste is seen a historical variable, and literariness and narratology are defined as discourse strategies (Volkmann, 1998, 402; Volkmann 2004, 196 et seq.; Cuddon, 545). Thus, no privileged “inner world” of “great authors” can be set against the background of “ordinary history” (Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 189).

Nevertheless, New Historicism grants certain important texts and authors the status of “semiotic force fields”, by virtue of their ability to “bundle” and “concentrate” social and cultural energies. In addition, it basically also regards literature as representative, because of its complexity and its general sensitivity to the harmonies and conflicts of culture (Volkmann 1998, 402; Volkmann 2004, 196; Burtscher-Bechter, 275 et seq.)

2.1.2. Methodology

New Historicism analyses and interprets literary works by re-contextualising them. They are correlated to other texts of the same epoch in order to establish interconnections between literature and the general culture of its period, and to place it in complex contemporary discursive frames (Burtscher-Bechter, 267; Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 188, 191; Anz, 357). Techniques of deconstruction are applied in a close reading in order to find the “fault lines”, the rifts and the exclusions in logo-centric text structures (Volkmann 1998, 402; Volkmann 2004, 196; Burtscher-Bechter, 174).

One method is an adaptation of the technique of “thick description” of US-American ethnologist Clifford Geertz. Instead of aiming at a meta-narrative which focuses on a unilateral causality or teleology, this approach examines the network of reciprocal cultural relationships and practices, and considers different possibilities of meaning in the respective contexts (cf. Volkmann 1998, 402; Volkmann 2004, 197; Schmitz, 542; Anz, 357; Burtscher-Bechter, 271).

Applied to literary studies, this method demands the comparative and sometimes provocative juxtaposition of canonical literature and other texts, in order to search for “reciprocal transactions”. It asks for the ways and circumstances that charge literary texts with “social energies”, e.g. gestures, rituals, forms of conduct and speech, collective symbols. It examines the voices which are present in literature and relates them to social groups, mentalities or discourses (Schmitz, 542; Gfrereis, 136). This implies a thorough collection of sufficient information on the respective historical period, in order to permit an interpretation, which illuminates the significance of the literary work in its contemporary cultural surroundings (Anz, 355 et seqq.).

2.1.3. Possible Foci

Since New Historicism is a collective term for a range of context-oriented, neo-historical approaches to the study of literature, subject matters can be quite diverse. An investigation of power relations may search for mechanisms of control and oppression in apparently coherent texts, or study struggles for social power and phenomena of negotiation (Volkmann, 1998, 402; Volkmann 2004, 197; Burtscher-Bechter, 270; Schmitz, 542). It can also include subversive and marginalised elements of society, or unearth silenced, excluded and oppressed voices or elements of the psyche (Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 192; Volkmann 1998, 402, Volkmann 2004, 196 et seq.). In this respect, New Historicism can question, break up and transform the traditional literary canon by privileging the suppressed voices. It can illustrate that the canon has arrived in schools and universities by mechanisms of exclusion and suppression, or provide new insights on canonical texts by searching for new meanings as “ideological trouble spots beyond the cognition” of the writer (cf. Volkmann 1998, 402, Volkmann 2004, 197; Cuddon, 546; Anz, 357; Burtscher-Bechter, 268; Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 191). Studies may also be concerned with aspects of class, gender and race as historical variable categories which influence the shaping of identity (Volkmann 1998, 401 et seq., Volkmann 2004, 196 et seq.). A wider scope may turn to historical cultural and socio-economic currents and examine the way the discourses are represented in literature, respectively how literature affected them in return (Wilpert, 560; Burtscher-Bechter, 269, 274).

2.2. Cultural Materialism

Cultural Materialism is the British pendant of New Historicism. As an approach to literary studies it also emerged in the 1980s and soon became institutionalised, but the term itself was already coined in the late 1950s by Raymond Williams (Burtscher-Bechter, 268; Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 189; Gfrereis, 34; Simonis 1998, 74; Newton 234). Like its American counterpart, Cultural Materialism serves as a cover term for a wide range of approaches to the study of literature and history, and aims at expanding literary studies by incorporating political and historico-cultural perspectives (cf. Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 193; Simonis 1998, 74; Simonis 2004, 18). It also makes use of concepts and methods of other academic disciplines, for instance of cultural studies, discourse analysis or deconstruction, and cooperates with gender studies, gay and lesbian studies, and postcolonial studies (Simonis 1998, 74 et seq.; Simonis 2004, 18, 20; Anz, 363; Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 194). The main representatives of Cultural Materialism are Raymond Williams, Catherine Belsey and Jonathan Dollimore (cf. Simonis 1998, 75 et seq.; Gfrereis, 35; Newton, 234).

Although New Historicism and Cultural Materialism exhibit many parallels, Cultural Materialists put a greater emphasises on the political and ideological level of literary texts, and can be said to have developed a more “radical type of historicism” (Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 191, 193; Simonis 1998, 74; Simonis 2004, 18; Nünning & Nünning, 42; Burtscher-Bechter, 269). This political focus can be traced back to a stronger influence of Marxist theory. By recourse to theorems of unorthodox neo-Marxist theories (e.g. Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Louis Althusser) and French and British Marxist literary theories Cultural Materialism overcomes the problematic aspects of traditional base-superstructure models, which assume a determinant force of the base structure and result in a mere poetics of reflection (cf. Klarer, 90; Simonis 1998, 74; Simonis 2004, 18; Strassen 1998, 343; Strassen 2004, 161; Gfrereis, 34; Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 187; Burtscher- Bechter, 269 )

Cultural materialists champion a model of reciprocal exchange processes between literary texts, cultural artefacts and historical data, and demand a greater consideration of the political dimension of literature. Power-relations and mechanisms of authority are seen to be deeply rooted in the discursive structures of an epoch, which also surface in its literature (cf. Simonis 1998, 74 et seq., Simonis 2004, 18; Burtscher-Bechter, 269).

In terms of methodology, Cultural Materialism propagates the necessity of interdisciplinary cooperation and demands a mutual integration of political theory, historiography, and cultural and literary studies. Thus, cultural materialists incorporate non-literary, historico-cultural documents in the study of literature (Simonis 1998, 74 et seq., Simonis 2004, 18et seq.).

By its strong political orientation Cultural Materialism often focuses on power analysis and power criticism. Works can be concerned with manifestations and mechanisms of power within literary works, explore the exertion and legitimation of power, or do research on the function of literature in state-owned or state-run power systems (Simonis 1998, 75; Simonis 2004, 19; Gfrereis, 34 et seq.) Cultural Materialism also encourages scholars to read dissidence into texts, and to consider resistances to dominant ideologies, as well as transgressive and oppositional voices (Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 191, 195; Newton, 235).

Due to this, Cultural Materialism often deals with the established literary canon by questioning, revising and expanding it. In addition, canonical texts are also presented in a different light to enable alternative readings (Simonis 1998, 75; Simonis 2004, 19; Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 194). Gender roles are another field of studies, which are examined with their socio-historical and political implications, as well as the relation between desire and the exertion of power. In this respect, Cultural Materialism rejects an essentialist notion of gender roles in favour of a cultural constructivism. Cultural materialists deem gender roles the results of specific cultural processes of socialisation, and projections of desire which are mediated via characteristic social discourses (cf. Simonis 1998, 75 et seq.; Simonis 2004, 20).

2.3. Approach and Methodology of This Study

This analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley will be based on a mixture between the two described approaches. Although the novel’s setting would suggest taking recourse to British Cultural Materialism, this paper will not be restricted to political aspects and gender roles, but will adopt the broader view on the text proposed by New Historicism, in order to include a greater variety of social discourses.

Besides, a clear differentiation or demarcation of the two context-oriented approaches is neither possible (cf. Volkmann 1998, 401; Volkmann 2004, 195) nor necessary. They are consistent in most theoretical assumptions, exhibit methodological affinities, and both emerged from Renaissance studies (cf. Klarer, 89, Anz, 354, 356; Nünning & Nünning, 39, 41; Schmitz, 542; Burtscher-Bechter, 268 et seq.; Simonis 1998, 74, 76; Simonis 2004, 18; Cuddon, 546). Dissent only exists in traditional Shakespeare philology and with regard to the evaluation of the Renaissance as an epoch (cf. Simonis 1998, 74 et seq.; Simonis 2004, 19; Selden, Widdowson & Brooker, 190). Since Shirley is a novel of the 19th century, these differences are irrelevant and a decision in favour of one theory is unnecessary.

This study will analyse Shirley as a canonical text will and contextualise it with historiography, texts on cultural history, and with works on the history of literature. It intends to “add specialist footnotes” (Eagleton, 13) to the representation of the past in Brontë’s novel, in order to examine the processes of social change in its industrial plot. Thus, it will portray contemporary social and political power constellations, discourses and ideologies. According to the eclectic nature of the chosen approach, explanations will take recourse to insights from various theories of literary studies, especially from Marxist and feminist theory. It will also use biographical material whenever necessary.

2.4. Social Change

By focussing on the processes of social change in Shirley this analysis ventures into the realm of sociology. Since the emergence of sociology as an independent social science in the middle of the 19th century, scholars have attempted to explain the enormous changes that swept Europe in terms of industrialisation and democratisation. Thus, social change has been a central issue of this discipline, which preoccupied almost every renowned sociologist (cf. Sekulic, 4360; Bornschier, 681 et seq., 685).

The term itself was introduced to sociology by the American William Fielding Ogburn in his book Social Change: With Respect to Culture and Original Nature (1922), in order to replace the former terms of “progress”, “development” and “evolution”, which were quite dubious in terms of their neutrality (Wiswede 1983, 462; Wiswede 1997, 596). As a broad general term, social change comprises all alternations in a social structure or of a social behaviour, which occur in a certain time segment or period as results of endogenous forces or exogenous influences (cf. Fuchs-Heinritz et al 2007, 720; Sekulic, 4360; Bornschier, 681, 684 et seq.; Wiswede 1983, 462, 464; Wiswede 1997, 596; Strasser & Nollmann, 912).

In a narrower sense, it can refer to short-term shifts or to long-term transformations, for instance the change-over from the feudal system to class society (Schubert & Klein, 274). It may denote a total conversion of a social system or changes in certain subsystems, as well as reorganisations in institutional structures, or exchanges of personnel in leadership positions of ruling organisations (cf. Wiswede 1983, 462, 464; Wiswede 1997, 596; Strasser & Nollmann, 912; Sekulic, 4363). Moreover, the concept is also applied to revolutionary economic and social processes, to shifts in social value systems, or to changes in interpersonal relationships (cf. Schubert & Klein, 274; Wiswede 1983, 463; Wiswede 1997, 597 et seq.; Strasser & Nollmann, 912; Sekulic, 4363; Bornschier, 681).

Sociological studies of social change can pursue diverse strategies. They may measure and classify it, study its sources and directions, predict trends, or attempt to find universalities in form of basic principles and mechanisms (cf. Hoffmann, 559 et seq.; Wiswede 1983,462 et seqq.; Wiswede 1997, 597; Sekulic, 4360; Bornschier, 681, 684; Strasser & Nollmann, 912). At present, sociology does not offer any universal theory of social change, but individual studies vary in scope and explanatory power (cf. Strasser & Nollmann, 913 et seq.).[1]

In terms of methodology, sociological theories use historical data and comparative material to account for changes on a synchronous or diachronous level. Inconsistencies, imbalances and discontinuities are of special interest for sociologists, since they hint at a social disequilibrium and at a so-called cultural lag, which denotes the delayed adaptation of the socio-cultural sectors of a society to material changes in the economic and technical sectors. (cf. Strasser & Nollmann, 912, Sekulic, 4360; Bornschier, 681, 683; Wiswede 1997, 596 et seq.; Wiswede 1983, 462)

The processes of social change which are to be examined in this analysis refer to the socio-economic breaks which resulted from Napoleonic Wars and the English Orders in Council, as well as to the far-reaching social upheavals in England connected to the proceeding industrialisation of the country in the 19th century. They mainly concern the relationships and tensions between the gentry, the industrial middle class and the working class, but also touch on conflicts between rivalling religious groups and on the status on women. A comparison of Shirley with historiography and texts on cultural history and on the history of literature will show in how far the representation of these social changes can be read as a comment on the contemporary social disequilibrium.

3. Main Part

3.1. Shirley as a Victorian Multi-Plot Novel

Shirley features a multitude of characters and events, and no single action dominates the plot (cf. Pinion, 122). Due to this, many critics blame the novel for a lack of structural unity (cf. Rosengarten 1983, 48; Rosengarten 1991, 52; Maletzke, 414; Avery, 121; Winnifrith, 94 et seq.; Thaden, 88; Enotes.com). Nevertheless, principal plot stands and topics exist, which refer to Robert Moore and the workers, Caroline Helstone and the old maids, or to Shirley and her relation to Louis Moore and the upper classes (cf. Pinion, 122 et seq.).

In an attempt to approach the novel, the plot can be divided into two main sub-plots, namely the industrial or political plot, dealing with instances of working-class insurrection, and the feminist plot, which is concerned with the status of the women in the 19th century and their limited vocational prospects. These two strands of plot pervade the whole story and exhibit a range of parallels and analogies, which provide a unifying connection (cf. Hook and Hook, Introduction 10; Maletzke, 416; Sellars, 84; Avery, 121; Winnifrith, 95; Zlotnick, 288; Bodenheimer, 38). Workers and women can both be seen either as “cultural outsiders” which are “condemned to starvation” (Zlotnick, 288 with reference to Gilbert and Gubar), as subjects of social victimisation and exploitation (cf. Rosengarten, 1983, 47; Rosengarten 1991, 52 Zlotnick, 288; Enotes.com), or as groups which are equally oppressed, silenced and neglected by society (cf. Sellars, 84; Taylor, 91; Avery, 121). Their impotence, dependence and vulnerability in economic terms are further unifying aspects (cf. Taylor 86; Thaden, 74, 89; Enotes.com; Bodenheimer, 37), as well as their enforced idleness resulting from being unemployed through no fault of their own (Zlotnick, 288; Thaden, 86 et seqq.; Bodenheimer, 50; Taylor, 91). Both groups can also be said to expect a paternalistic intervention to alleviate their misery (cf. Brontë, 157, 378; Bodenheimer, 42).

Despite the fact that the industrial plot is subordinate to the feminist one in terms of its overall significance in the novel and its impact on Shirley’s reception (cf. Bodenheimer, 37), this paper will focus on the industrial events of the story. Nevertheless, it will discuss aspects of the feminist plot which bear immediate reference to the industrial theme.

A third strand of plot, the ecclesiastical plot dealing with the representatives of Victorian denominations and their respective actions, could also be treated in isolation. Since clergymen and dissenters play important roles in the industrial events, the analysis will broach ecclesiastical and theological matters whenever they become significant in the industrial plot.

Due to its multitude of plot strands, Shirley belongs to the genre of multi-plot novels, which were very popular in Victorian times. This type of novel owed much of its success to its suitability to the triple-decker or three-volume novel format, which granted publishers, circulating libraries, and retailers remarkable profits. On the other hand, it was also an instrument enabling writers to illuminate human and social complexities in greater detail (cf. Frawley, 440). Multi-plot novels also accommodated Victorian inquisitiveness, which became evident in the numerous discussions of diverse issues from “The Irish Question” to “The Oyster Question” (cf. Frawley, 403). Shirley’s plots deal with “Condition of England Question” and the “women’s question”.

3.2. The Industrial Plot

3.2.1. Shirley – A Condition of England Novel

Shirley’s subject matter and its concern for complex social issues in a turbulent period of English history, assign the novel to a certain sub-genre of the realist novel which emerged in the late 1830s, the condition of England novel (cf. Ousby, 212; Avery, 121; Rosengarten 1983, 47; Rosengarten 1991, 53; Thaden, 73; Frawley, 439, 462; Hook & Hook, Introduction 9; Sherry, 36).

In the 19th century literature was no longer solely an expression of the ruling strata and their worldview, it became an instrument for writers to oppose them and to provide alternatives (Seeber, 222). Many people felt challenged by the ubiquitous rapid changes of society, and the resulting uncertainty nourished a longing and demand for orientation, which was expected to be provided by literature. Therefore, literature’s task was to discover, explore and criticise social distortions and losses of meaning, which arose from the processes of modernisation. Sometimes it even compensated them with opposing positive imagery (cf. Fröhlich, 124; Seeber, 217 et seq., 221).

Authors of the condition of England novels, which appeared throughout the 1840s and 1850s and were very popular in mid-century, overtly reflected on and responded to the wide-ranging problems connected with the new urban and industrial state of British society, and broached complex problems of economic and social conflict. Due to this, these novels form a powerful alloy of social and literary history (cf. Frawley, 439, 460; Zlotnick, 282).

In the 1830s and 1840s, the social conscience of the middle-class public had been stirred by the miseries of factory life. Rural squalor was accepted as a fact of life, but urban sordidness, filth and overpopulation caused concern, and lead to calls for a sanitary reform. Some even interpreted the resulting diseases as God’s punishment for people’s neglect of his commandments (cf. Ousby, 212; Seeber, 269). Contemporary sanitary conditions were in deed beyond words and questions of public health became increasingly pressing. The main problems of the densely populated urban centres and industrial agglomerations comprised water supply, sewerage, sanitary facilities, as well as miserable living and housing conditions (cf. Fröhlich, 115, 117; Maurer, 328; Frawley, 459). Unsurprisingly, three major epidemics of cholera severely affected working class communities in 1831, 1853 and 1866. The Public Health Act of 1848 introduced a Central Board of Health with the competence to supervise street cleaning and waste removal, and with a responsibility for the water supply (Frawley, 414).

Aristocracy and middle classes, who dreaded uproars comparable to the French revolution, declared the misery of the working classes a pressing issue, a political time bomb which had to be defused as fast as possible. The disintegration of English society into “two nations” as Benjamin Disraeli put it, into a rich and a poor part which were self-contained and nearly ignorant of each other, was regarded a greater menace to England’s peace, prosperity and order than external threats (cf. Seeber, 269; Fröhlich 110).

In this respect, the condition of England novels were a literary response to industrialism and to the plight of the workers. They aimed at introducing aristocratic and middle-class readerships to working-class culture by realistic depictions of settings and characters, as well as by the use of dialects and sociolects in dialogues. Predominantly, the novels featured a mix of sympathy and fear, compassion for the hardships and misery of the working classes mingled with an apprehension of violent uprisings (cf. Frawley, 461; Seeber, 270 et seq.; Frawley, 458, 461). The hallmark social novels were characterised by a middle-class perspective, because they were intended to appeal to a middle-class audience and were also mainly written by authors of the same social stratum. Consequently, the representations of the working classes and the suggested solutions to their problems exhibited middle-class overtones (cf. Frawley, 459, 463).

Thus, the merits of the condition of England novels are quite ambiguous. On the one hand they made significant contributions to reform discourses and debates by campaigning for sympathy, but on the other hand they often mirrored a deep distrust of the workers, a fear of the hoi polloi and its susceptibility for political agitation (cf. Frawley, 458, 461; Seeber, 269 et seq., 272).

In terms of subject matters and topics the condition of England novels covered all problematic social implications of the industrial revolution and the shady sides of modernisation (cf. Fröhlich, 121; Seeber, 269; Hook & Hook, Introduction 9). The concept of the urban, which played an important role in social and political analyses and debates of the era, was also a central issue in literature. Novels addressed socio-economic problems of urban life, like overpopulation, water supply and sanitation, but also turned to darker themes like slums, starvation, prostitution, drug addiction and crime (cf. Frawley, 439, 459; Ousby, 212; Fröhlich, 115). Furthermore, the range of topics included the mechanisation of labour and working conditions in factories, as well as the living conditions and the economic vulnerability of the working classes (cf. Frawley, 459et seq.). Authors explored the human and moral costs of modernisation, commented on social disintegration, and found the reasons for the “breach between man and man” in materialism, egoism and alienation (cf. Seeber, 255 et seq., 273; Ousby, 212). Other themes included change-induced confusion and disorientation, social upheaval and fears of revolution, as well as the significance of education (cf. Fröhlich, 121; Thaden, 73; Ousby, 212).

Among the famous condition of England novels rank Francis Trollope’s Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1839), Coningsby, or the New Generation (1844) and Sybil or The Two Nations (1845) by Benjamin Disraeli, as well as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855). Other works include Charles Kingsley’s novels Yeast, A Novel (1849) and Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet (1850), and, of course, the novels of Charles Dickens, especially Hard Times (1854). Writers not associated with the actual novels, but with the Condition of England Question in general are Thomas Carlyle and Dinah Mulock (cf. Frawley, 439, 461et seq.; Seeber, 256; 269; Hook and Hook, 9; Fröhlich, 94 et seqq.; Thaden, 73; Ousby, 212).

Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley exhibits a range of typical features of the condition of England novels and can therefore be subsumed under this label (cf. Frawley, 439, 462; Ousby, 212). It is a work of a middle-class author dealing with a period of working class riots, which can be regarded as reactions to the social changes caused by the industrial revolution. The defence of Robert Moore’s mill in Shirley takes up a familiar motif: the mill owner who stands up to an attack on his property and quells a mob by virtue of his personality (cf. Ousby, 212). Furthermore, the novel portrays these riots through the perspectives of characters that mainly belong to the middle-class and to the gentry. Its depiction of militant workers mirrors the aforementioned fear of a working-class insurrection, but via the positive connotations of the worker William Farren it also asks for sympathy for the dilemma of the lower orders. Shirley touches on moral issues, criticises the egoism and self-interest of the industrial middle-class, and suggests a specific conservative middle-class solution to the Condition of England Question. These aspects will be elaborated on in the following paragraphs in order to bring out the novel’s peculiarities as a Victorian social novel.

Summing up, Shirley is a Condition of England novel, which some critics regard as a significant tribute to the Victorian debate on goals and virtues of industrial capitalism, which ranks with Disraeli’s Sybil or The Two Nations, Gaskell’s Mary Barton and Dickens’s Hard Times (cf. Rosengarten 1983, 48; Rosengarten, 1991, 53; Sherry, 36).

3.2.2. The Setting - The Historical Socio-Economic Situation of 1811/12 and Its Representation The Historical Socio-Economic Situation of 1811/12 – Napoleonic Wars and Orders in Council

Shirley is set in the West Riding district of Yorkshire in 1811-12 (Brontë, 39 et seq.), at the time of the Luddite riots during the last stages of the Napoleonic Wars. Its events take place in a crisis of early English capitalism caused by unrestrained economic policies and practices, a period characterized by unemployment, poverty and social unrest (cf. Waldmann, 123; Thaden, 73; Stapleton, 805, Sellars, 82). In order to evaluate Charlotte Brontë’s representation in the novel, a sound knowledge of the underlying historical situation is necessary.

The starting point of the problems of 1811-12 was the French revolution, which began 1789 with the storming of the Bastille. In 1793 the French king Louis XVI was executed by the guillotine like thousands of other aristocrats and enemies of the people who died during a period which is now known as the “reign of terror”. Many European monarchies feared a proletarian revolution, since revolutionary ideas circulated, and because Napoleon Bonaparte exported the French state system by military force from 1803 on to as many countries he could conquer (cf. Thaden, 85 et seq.; Kitson, 325).

The initial British attitude towards the French revolution ranged from enthusiastic appreciation to hostile disapproval. Proponents were fascinated by the notions of the sovereignty of the people and of the rule of reason, and they sympathised with the demands for freedom and equality. This enthusiasm was shared by many intellectuals, like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Debating and reform societies were founded, and opinions were reflected culturally in a multitude of pamphlets, poems, dramas, novels, satires, cartoons and caricatures (cf. Kitson, 350; Fröhlich, 102; Maurer, 312).

In political terms, the liberal leader of the Whig opposition Charles James Fox talked about the incidents in France with benevolent interest and even called them the greatest event in history (cf. Fröhlich, 102; Seeber, 218). Some supporters of the revolution believed that the French were freeing themselves from the tyranny of the absolute monarchy and intended to gear their new form of government to the British model of limited monarchy (Fröhlich, 102; Maurer, 316: Kitson, 323). Others were of the opinion that the events on the continent would be beneficial for Britain, since they would weaken its rival France and reduce its political sway (cf. Fröhlich, 100).

On the other hand, conservative forces feared the conditions abroad and rejected the republican principles of freedom and equality. They dreaded a violent overthrow of the traditional regime and insisted on reforms as a way to adapt to the altered social and political circumstances (cf. Fröhlich, 100; Maurer, 312; Seeber, 219). Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which was perceived as a conservative manifesto throughout Europe, warned against the social upheavals in France and against possible negative impacts on England (cf. Fröhlich, 100; Maurer, 312; Seeber, 219; Kitson, 334 et seq.). Republican Thomas Paine’s reply Rights of Man. Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution (1791) fiercely repudiated his view and caused quite a contemporary stir, which lead to the founding of many constitutional societies (cf. Fröhlich, 97, 100 et seq.; Maurer, 312 et seq., 316; Seeber, 218; Kitson, 350). The common franchise, which had been the central demand of radical reformers of the Enlightenment in the preceding decades, now became a pivotal issue for skilled workers, artisans and craftsmen, especially in the metropolis London (cf. Maurer, 311 et seq.).


[1] For an overview on sociological theories cf. Wiswede 1997, 597 et seq.; Wiswede 1983, 464 et seq.; Strasser & Nollmann, 912 et seq.; Sekulic, 4360 et seq.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
782 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Hannover – Philosophische Fakultät / Englisches Seminar
Social Change Century Novel Luddism Chartism Women’s Question Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley



Title: Social Change in the 19th Century Novel